Exercise Order Selection: Strength Vs Cardio for Fat Loss

Featured Image Strength Vs Cardio

The quarantine fifteen has opened Pandora’s proverbial lose weight quick box; at least that’s what social media would have you think. Inquiries about exercise selection and order are in no short supply, especially when it comes to which to start with to promote fat loss: strength training vs. cardio.

Fitness professionals are accustomed to fielding questions about exercise selection, body composition, and weight loss vs fat loss. Yet this topic is so pervasive right now it’s like a merry-go-round of myth-dispelling conversations regarding the efficacy of strength training vs. aerobic endurance training. 

 What should clients do when on their own?

A lot of people want to know how to navigate the waters independently. Pandemic or not, the following questions are forever present among fitness clients:

  • Should I do cardio?
  • Should I lift weights?
  • Should I do a combination of both?
  • Should I do one before the other?

While these are all great questions, and the simple answer to the first three is, yes, the last question takes the discussion down a more specific and byzantine path. The answer to whether to perform strength or cardio first for fat loss doesn’t simply lie in cleanly selecting one modality or the other but rather in the metabolic pathways, caloric expenditure, and programming overall.

Metabolic pathways

When it comes to programming, it is imperative to think about which of the three metabolic pathways will be most called upon, and how those pathways help exercisers reach their ultimate goals.

The phosphagen pathway (where creatine phosphate is utilized in the formation of ATP) plays a vital role in short, power output movements such as big heavy lifts, plyometric exercises, and short-distance sprints up to 30 seconds.

The glycolytic pathway (where glucose is is utilized in the formation ATP) fuels movements for up to about two minutes and kicks in during intense, back-to-back intervals with little recovery in between. A good example is circuit training.

The oxidative pathway (where oxygen is the energy sources) is utilized for endurance activities like long-distance running or cycling, and metcon workouts popular made popular Crossfit (guess where the name comes from: metabolic conditioning) workouts.

Caloric Expenditure: Strength vs Cardio

Another often misunderstood concept is the correlation of energy expenditure, or calories burned, and weight/fat loss goals.

A common misconception is that burning a lot of calories during an aerobic workout is synonymous with higher weight and/or fat loss.

The truth is, however, that the number of calories burned during a cardio workout represents only a portion of the total calories burned for the day. While weight lifting sessions tend to burn fewer calories during a session compared to aerobic endurance, those who strength train burn more overall calories due to a phenomenon called EPOC where the body continues to burn calories post-workout session.

Furthermore, it’s difficult for many to grasp that burning 500 calories on the treadmill four days a week may amount to 2000 calories burned, but is that enough to create a caloric deficit? One that amounts to weight loss? Diet must absolutely be taken into account for this to work at all, and this requires a lot more thought and attention than watching the “calories burned” numbers tick up on a cardio machine.

Goal Setting for Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss

How do we steer clients to incorporate both strength and cardio into their routines without overwhelming them with all this jargon related to EPOC and metabolic pathways? Trainers are privy to the fact that weight loss and fat loss are often conflated, so goal-setting conversations are imperative before programming can begin. 

Next, we need to clarify whether they are splitting these modalities up into separate sessions, or if they plan to include both in the same workout session. If they separate strength and cardio, it is a bit easier from a programming perspective to create a well-rounded schedule where all of the metabolic pathways are mixed in.

If the intention is to do both during one workout session, programming which one to do first requires consulting relevant research.

 Strength vs Cardio for Fat Loss vs Weight Loss

For clients whose main goal is fat loss, most evidence supports the notion that strength exercises should be completed prior to cardio exercises. 

As can be seen from the discussion on metabolic pathways above, weight lifting is going to utilize and recreate fuel, in this case adenosine triphosphate (ATP), in the phosphagen and glycolytic pathways to sustain this phase of the workout. Then, when clients move on to the endurance phase of their workout, the oxidative pathway will get them through the finish line.

Moving onto the strength portion of the workout after endurance is like drinking from an empty glass. Therefore ,I practice what I preach by programming my combo sessions to include 60-75% strength-focused training followed by endurance training for the remaining 25-40%.

What Do Average Exercisers Think about Strength vs Cardio First?

Just out of curiosity I thought it would be interesting to open up this topic to an active group on social media. I posed the question: For those of you who do both strength training and cardio in the same workout, which do you do first?

Option A: strength first followed by cardio (43 affirmative votes)

Option B: cardio first followed by strength (13 affirmative votes)

Option C: mix and match strength moves with cardio throughout the workout (6 affirmative votes)

Although I’d hoped to get more votes on the poll for a larger sample size, I was pleasantly surprised that even non-fit pros were on the right side of the numbers.

In the comments section of the poll it was obvious that a lot of people understand that they will be exhausted or their strength output would suffer if done after cardio. Consider sharing a link to this blog for those of your clients who may wish to understand a little more science behind their decisions or direction if they are confused.

To my fellow fit pros, how are you conversing about this with your clients?







Theresa Perales has an MA in Spanish, and is an ESL teacher at San Diego State University (SDSU). After years of struggling with her weight, she decided to give exercise a try. A passion for health and fitness grew instantly and inspired her to become certified as a personal trainer with NFPT, and as a group fitness instructor with AFAA Group Fitness and Madd Dog Athletics® Spinning. Theresa believes that nutrition and fitness are not about aesthetics but ultimately about feeling healthy and empowered.